Kinoshita’s “A Japanese Tragedy” (1953)

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Like many Japanese and Chinese movies, Kinoshita’s 1953 “Nihon no higeki” has a multiplicity of English renderings. They may seem close but “A Japanese Tragedy” has a quite different meaning than “Tragedy of Japan” (or, even, “Japanese Tragedy”). The opening montage of Occupation and incipient (but corrupt) democracy in Japan suggests that the focus will be at the macro level, and the tragedy (in the singular) is the dominance of militarists who reaped the wind of war and sowed the disaster of defeat.

Most of the movie, however, focuses on the middle-aged Inoue Haruko (Mochizuki Yûko), whose husband was killed in Tokyo during the war by an American bomb. She has struggled to provide education and concomitant better life chances for her 21-year-old daughter, Utako (Katsuragi Yôko), and nineteen -year-old medical school-attending son, Seiichi (Taura Masami). To put it mildly, neither appreciates her devotion. Both are embarrassed by her overemotionalism, by her low-status employment, as a food-serving girl in an inn in the tourist destination of Atami (near Tokyo) and by having prostituted herself to get money to support her family in the desperate times following Japan’s defeat.

She is a bit cloying, but the ingratitude is extreme. Partly, her children have been turned against her by her brother-in-law (Himori Shinichi) to whom she mistakenly entrusted caring for them on her husband’s land. The black marketeer violated his agreement, which had been forged on family solidarity that he invoked but did not deliver.

Utako was raped soon after the end of the war. She tells the English teacher (Uehara Ken) who wants her to run away with him that she doesn’t dislike him personally, but that she hates men in general… and also his wife. She goes off with him without even leaving a note to her mother.

Meanwhile, Seiichi wants to be adopted by an aged physician and his wife. They lost their only son during the war and can provide him more money and status (including professional status) than his mother can. They are never seen, but could not have less empathy for Haruko than their son does. Both children avoid eye contact when she visits.

The tearjerker “mother picture” (haha-mono) is a tragedy of the shattered Japan. The newspaper headlines and newsreel footage are the macro connection to the micro story of one shattered family and there is a flashback to a classroom in a bombed out (ceilingless) building in which Utako questions the teacher who had earlier espoused the noble mission of the Japanese military and now says it was a mistake. She accuses him of lying to the students and he responds that he mistakenly believed propaganda fed him.

The mosaic of public events was novel to Japanese audiences ca. 1953, though the flashbacks to rubble, hypocrisy, and disaster could not have been. They are more ancient history now, and I found the flashbacks more interesting than Haruko’s plaints (however well justified) to and about her children and her nefarious brother-in-law and his equally nasty wife.

Audie Bock (Japanese Film Directors) points out that at the same time Kinoshita was making Nihon no higeki,” Ozu Yasijuro said he was making a film about the breakdown of the traditional Japanese family system (Tokyo Story, generally regarded as Ozu’s masterpiece), but that “Kinoshita drives home all that Ozu left out… [with] maternal love and beauty corrupted by outside, impersonal, unfeeling political and social forces.”

It shared with Ozu films many long takes, though beginning with a fast-cutting montage. Kinoshita’s brother-in-law cinematographer delivered some striking deep-focus shots in and around the inn where Haruko drudges.

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(Takahashi Teiji and Sada Keiji)

Before the montage of disaster and at the very end, a street musician played by Sada Keiji accompanying himself on guitar intones the melancholy “Resort Town Elegy.” This seems weird (especially with Sada being the performer) more than sentimental.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

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Kinoshita’s “Fireworks Over the Sea” (1951)

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Kinoshita Keisuke shot two movies between “Carmen Goes Home” (1951) and its sequel “Carmen’s Pure Love” (1952). The historically more important one, is “Shônen-ki,” called in English “Boyhood” (by Janus-Criterion-Hulu”, “A Record of Youth,” and just “Youth.”“Fireworks Over the Sea” (a direct translation of the title of Kinoshita’s 1951 “Umi no hanabi”) is a rather overstuffed melodrama of Japanese self-sacrifice with opening and closing daytime fireworks as a pair of fishing boats go out to seat cheered on by a crowd on shore, four fight scenes, two scenes in a Catholic church (with no pews or pads for those kneeling and praying), at least four iterations of an a capella “Ava Maria” (in Japanese: I could hear “Ave” but not “Maria”) by a very cheerful adolescent male Christian, two dutiful daughters willing to be married to bail out their father’s failing fishing company, a pair of brothers from Nagasaki who take over captaining the two boats after corrupt local ones are fired, a geisha trying to find out what happened to her fiancé during the last days of WWII, a younger brother cavorting (more as a pet than a lover) with his older brother’s wife, etc.

I found it difficult to keep all the romantic complications straight, though the difficulties of the fishing company with restive investors and declining fish prices and a lack of governmental support for the enterprise that it had initially encouraged were clear enough, as the director, Kamiya Tarobei (the ubiquitous Ryû Chishû) struggled to support the fishermen and captains he employed and safeguard the investment of relavitely wealthy fellow residents of Yobuko (on northern Kyushu). He is reluctant if not altogether unwilling to sell of his younger daughter Mie (Kogura Michiyo) to raise more money. She is in love with Kono (Sugimura Haruko) who goes about town and is the recipient of gifts from his sister-in-law (Kishi Teruko), while her husband/his brother Tamihiko (Sada Keiji) loafs around the flat above the store in Tokyo, to the distress of his mother (Kinoshita regular Higashiyama Chieko). The other dutiful daughter, Miwa (Kastsuragi Yôko), is in love with one of the captains from Nagasaki.

There are a lot of scenes on boats, mostly in the Yabuko, Saga harbor, and some bus travel, but eventually there are shots of trains to please me. In general, Kinoshita’s brother and usual cinematographer, Kusuda Hiroshi, did good works both in interior compositions and in exteriors. Kinoshita Chûji’s music is incongruously bouncy, with sentimentality provided by the repeated “Ava Marie.” Kinoshita Keisuke was, reportedly (by Audie Bock), eager to wrap the picture and go off to France to meet René Clair.

There is implicit social criticism of the abuse of women (the geisha most manifestly, but also the daughters ready to sacrifice their futures to loveless marriages). And the national bureaucrats (of the Fishery Ministry) are heartless, refusing to talk to the delegation from Yabuko until Kamiya Tarobei has a heart attack on the third day of waiting in its office in Tokyo to plead his company’s case.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

Kinoshita’s portrayal of wartime internal exile: “Shônen-ki” (1951)

Kinoshita Keisuke shot two movies between “Carmen Goes Home” (1951) and its sequel “Carmen’s Pure Love” (1952). The historically more important one, is “Shônen-ki,” called in English “Boyhood” (by Janus-Criterion-Hulu”, “A Record of Youth,” and just “Youth.” (The other was the incoherent “Fireworks Over the Sea.”)

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I found  the patriotic music difficult to bear in Konoshita’s  1951 “Boyhood (Shônen-ki), even if its intent was ironic (about which I’m not entirely sure, though I think it was, though I think it was; against that is the rarity of Kinoshita being on the side of a father rather than a son).

I wanted to identify with the liberal scholar father (Ryû Chichû), but Kinoshita portrayed him as self-centered, which is also the critical view of the more fascist of his son Ichirô (Ishihama Akira, a decade before dying agonizingly in Shinoda’s “Hara-kiri”).

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Ichirô was 16 when the war ended, restive in the countryside, to which he had resisted going when the rest of the family evacuated Tokyo, but he eventually rejoined them there after Japan’s surrender. Ichirô remains dubious about his father’s patriotism, though his father tries to explain that, not knowing at what moment he/they may be killed by US bombs, he wants to spend all his waking time reading.

 

“Carmen Falls in Love” (1952)

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The Carmen of “Carmen Falls in Love” /”Carmen’s Innocent Love” is a more recognizable self-sacrificing Takamine Hideko than the vulgar stripper of “Carmen Goes Home.” The sequel was shot in color that broke down, so can only be seen in black-and-white. The stripper Carmen’s pretensions to being an artist continue. She performs (dances and strips) in a pantomime of the Carmen story, with the familiar Bizet music played by a four-piece band.

She volunteers to pose nude for a surrealist sculptor, Sudo Hajime, with whom she falls in love. With infatuation comes inhibition, and she is embarrassed to pose nude for her beloved and two of his artist friends, and also ducks stripping at the club where she performs when he, his fiancée, Chirdori, and her mother come to see her perform.

There are two babies, one belonging to Carmen’s friend and former co-worker, Akime (Kobayashi Toshiko), who already showed herself more soft-headed about men in the first movie. The father of Akime’s baby turned communist and abandoned them. The other baby was borne by Satake, who comes across as a greedy shrew who has been abandoned by Shudo also has abandoned a son and its mother, who comes across as a greedy shrew, but not as greedy as his slutty fiancée (both Shudo and her mother call her “slut”), Chidori.

Chidori’s very ugly mother, Satake Kumako, the widow of a lieutenant general, is running for the Diet (congress) in the first democratic election on a platform of rearmament and tax cuts (a proto-US-Republican of the 21st century). She confuses the two babies, and thinks that Carmen is the mother of Sudo’s baby (though Akime’s baby, whom Carmen is carrying is a girl and Sudo’s is a boy). The candidate tries to buy off Carmen, who agrees to give up Sudo without payment (which does nothing at all to quell the demands from the woman who is raising his son).

Both the artist and the slut are marrying to get a property worth 3-4 million yen that is controlled by the widow Satake. There is no explanation of why marriage is necessary. I suppose that it is a condition of inheritance set by the late lieutenant general.

The artist’s (family’s) maid, played by Ozu veteran Higashiyama Chieko, lost her family in one of the atomic bomb attacks and is constantly fretting that every loud noise is another one being dropped on Tokyo. (Did Japanese ca. 1952 find this funny? I don’t)

Various plotlines converge at an election rally for Satake Kumako, at which Sudo has agreed to speak. He is heckled by the communist father of Akime’s baby. An outraged Carmen denounces him and is called up onstage by the candidate—and besides defending the beloved she gave up expresses her abhorrence of any more war.

The tilted (“Dutch angle”) photography is not used to any obvious purpose and strikes me as an annoying gimmick in the movie. More annoying is the failure to follow through on any of the many storylines. “The end of part two” (as the closing titles put it) shows that a third outing was anticipated, but was not made.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

The first Japanese color movie: “Carmen Comes Home” (1951)

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I didn’t know that Takamine Hideko (whom I consider the Japanese Olivia de Haviland)  could do more than suffer delicately, but she was quite entertaining as a pure-hearted Tokyo stripper returned home to her native village in the first Japanese movie shot in color, Kinoshita’s 1951 “Carmen Comes Home” (Karumen kokyo ni kaeru). I wouldn’t call it “sentimental,” but it is life-affirming and her censorious father (Sakamoto Takeshi) and the school principal (Ryû Chishû) eventually take “wild naked dancing” in stride and fine good use for the money Carmen left for her father.

And Maruju, “the transportation magnate,” makes enough money from the performance by the visiting pair of stripper’s (Kin/“Carmen” and her friend Akemi, played by Kobayashi Toshiko) that he feels benevolent and ends an injustice he had committed. With a recurring hymn to Mount Asama (in Shinshu) and shots of it, the scandalous homecoming movie drags at times, especially when Ryû sings, and the roles are types are not developed characters. The rationalizations of showing naked flesh as “art” are gently pilloried. What seems most funny to me is that Lily Carmen believes she is an “artist” and her stripping “art; moreover even the most skeptical of the villagers (her father and the gradeschool principal) don’t entirely reject the conception.

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I’m not sure whether Kinoshita thought the big-city strippers innocent, though the warm farewells of the locals as their train takes them back suggests acceptance of them, which, after all their gnashing of teeth, the principal and Kin’s father also do. The latter was ashamed, but no one shows/feels guilt about naked displays (or anything else).

Though first shooting two other films, Kinoshita filmed a sequel set in Tokyo the next year (1952).

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Kinoshita’s “Zen-Ma” (aka “The Good Fairy”, 1951)

 

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“The Good Fairy” is a peculiar title(/translation for “Zen-Ma”) for Kinoshita Keisuke’s 1951 movie that begins with journalists and ends with marrying a fresh corpse in the mountains of northern Honshu. I thought it was going to be a critique (or a satire) of journalists’ scandal-amplifying, as in Kurosawa’s (1950 “Scandal,” but the scandal is not reported, though reporter Mikuni Rentarô (the name of the character and of the actor, in the first of many roles) does find out what the corrupt official Kitaura Tsuyoshi has to conceal (Sena Koreya).

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It starts with Kitaura’s wife Itsuko (Awashima Chikage) leaving him. Mikuni tracks her down with the aid of Itsuko’s sister Mikako (Katsuragi Yôko) with whom he falls in love en route to interviewing Itsuko, who refuses to explain her leaving her husband or to tell of his gross misconduct, even after his attorney presents an unreasonable set of demands.

Ten years earlier, Mikuni’s boss (Susumu Tatsuoka) was secretly in love with Itsuko before she married up, and the torch has not been extinguished, though he has been living with Suzue (Kobayashi Toshiko [Cruel Story of Youth]), whom he does not treat with any consideration, though she is lotal to him. This mistreatment eventually alienates the pure-hearted Mikuni from his admiration for his boss/mentor/prospective brother-in-law.

As usual in Kinoshita movies, there is a single parent, though unusually it is the father of Itsuko and Mikako, portrayed by a gentle Ryû Chisû (quite different from the martinet father he played in “Army” for Kinoshita).

The characters, especially Mikuni, shift emotions on something like a dime. I think he is the “good fairy,” though he is referred to as “Evil” for his intolerant purism (and the character in the title is closer to “demon” than to “good fairy”). I find him insufferable, though Kinoshita had a penchant for portraying such pure-of-heart young male characters.

Mikako is also pure of heart, but far more empathetic to the emotional pains of her elders.

There are some shots of moving trains that I especially like, also something of a Kinoshita hallmark.

I’m not sure if Japanese divorce laws were so stacked against wives as it seems in the movie, or whether some of the outrageousness is attributable to Itsuko failing to retain legal counsel of her own and believing what his tells her.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

Minor Kinoshita soap opera: “Wedding Ring” (1950)

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The title of Kinoshita’s 1950 very predictable soap opera “Konyaku yubiwa” was translated into English as “Engagement Ring,” but the ring often shown in closeup is a diamond wedding ring, and the current Criterion/Hulu title “Wedding Ring” is far more accurate a title.

At the start, the very conscientious young physician (his vocation is established immediately, since the bus conductor is his patient) Ema (Mifune Toshirô) who rushes onto an SRO bus is literally thrown into the lap of an older woman riding on the bus. Mrs. Kuki (Tanaka Kinuyo). They both have given names (Takeshi and Noriki, respectively) but always address each other as Mr. Emi and Mrs. Kuki.

It turns out (what a coincidence) that Emi is on his way to the seaside town of Ajiro to treat Mrs. Kuki’s husband, Michio (Uno Yûkichi). The couple was married shortly before the husband went off to war and he returned with tuberculosis, so they have not had conjugal relations except very briefly when they were first married.

How could she not be attracted to the robustly healthy young Mifune (ten years her junior), having a husband in name only? She couldn’t and he is attracted to her as well (though it seems to me that he had the freedom to encounter many other and more attractive women).

Though not immune to jealousy, Michio recognizes that his wife is unfulfilled sexually. He likes his doctor and that doctor is not only conscientious in his treatment of his patient but very correct in curbing his desire for the yearningly available wife.

Mrs. Yuki watched Emi go swimming in the absurd swimsuits extending above the navel of the day (later, Emi strips down to his underwear and reveals his navel…). There are frequent shots in early Kinoshita movies of people from the knee down walking, and Emi’s footwear is observed closely by Mrs. Kuki and by the camera.

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There are many artful compositions concocted by Kinoshita and his brother-in-law and usual cinematographer, Kusuda Hiroshi, while, as was often the case, Kinoshita’s brother, Chûji, was guilty of musical overkill (in the Max Steiner tradition). The flopping around resisting temptation, but ultimately doing the right thing is very, very predictable, as if the Hollywood Production Code was regulating Japanese movie (under the US military occupation at the time, it unofficially was).

©2016, Stephen O. Murray